Contemporary Aesthetic Experience
"… that imminence of a revelation that is not yet produced is, perhaps, the aesthetic reality."
Jorge Luis Borges
lives in Vienna. He holds an M.A. in Aesthetic and Theory of Contemporary Art, Philosophy of Art and Political Science. He is DJ, music producer and editor of Entkunstung Journal.
In Ad Reinhardt’s cartoon book How to Look at Art there is a detail that drew my attention: the two angels of Raphael’s painting The Sistine Madonna are having a conversation and one of them affirms: “I don’t know anything about art, but I know what I like”, while the other angel replies: “Yeah, isn’t it nice that the obligation to be intelligent doesn’t extend to the field of art?”These two statements are an invitation to think about the notion of aesthetic experience –with its limits and potentialities– when it comes to analysing various phenomena in the relation artwork-spectator in contemporary art. Furthermore, the content of this dialogue calls to question the role played by theory in the production, reception and understanding of art and asks how to address the idea(l) of the democratic in the field of arts.
Art is everywhere. It took over all facets of our daily life. Art never succumbed to life, instead, art surrounds us on every corner; art is in a gaseous state, following the thesis of Yves Michaud. Art is woven into every fibre of our existence but we don’t recognize it. Thus, contemporary art is co-dependent on theory more than ever.Today it is impossible to recognize art without a concept, or at least an idea of what the artist wants to communicate with his/her productions. In addition, artists don’t know exactly what they are doing, so they need a discourse, something that holds the pieces together; artists depend on academic-scientific support in order to present and sell their work to an audience as art. However, they are not the only ones in need of a theory: the spectator (most people who “consume” art doesn’t know anything about art) comes to an exhibition and is lost.This audience needs to read the long statement at the entrance to the exhibition room or has to buy the catalogue at the end of the tour in order to grasp some of the intentions of the artist and/or curator.
The need of a theory or some kind of academic-scientific explanation is vital for initiating a process of communication between the artwork and the spectator in order to, at a certain point, have “a kind of dialogue”.Nevertheless, the truth is that the spectator really doesn’t care whether or not they understand what they are seeing –or consuming. Simply liking or disliking an artwork is enough – a development highly problematic for both, the spectator and art itself.
We like art in the same way we like design products or kitties and “if art is only a matter of taste, then the art spectator becomes more important than the art producer. In this case art can be treated only sociologically or in terms of the art market—it has no independence, no power. Art becomes identical to design.” On the assumption that art needs theory for its production and reception, we are nothing more than the passive spectators of Hegel’s theory of the end of art. And if the only way to appreciate art is to have a catalogue of concepts, and if there is no room for experiencing it as something aesthetic, we are losing an essential form of reasoning –different from logic, norms, morality or religion–, but so valuable for comprehending life. Art, in the end, becomes part of the realm of philosophy or sociology.
Art, in its symbolic ways, is aperture of the world, as Heidegger pointed out; art, even belonging to natural language, can create worlds, and in doing so, it expands the limits of understanding, presenting ways of life that we would have never imagined.
Today we are witnessing the aestheticization of an already atrophied experience. Every period, every society has had its particular way of experiencing the sensible, and now is the period of experiencing and considering everything around us as artistic and beautiful. Under this scenario, our judgement, unfortunately, goes no further than the mere ‘like’.
Beauty is everywhere, just like art; the Cremaster Cycle is beautiful, so is the iPhone, so are my photographs, my posts; Rick Owens’ designs, Schönberg and superstudio are also beautiful; there are no distinctions made.We have left behind the times of the society of spectacle; we are no longer the passive consumer, no. We are the producers. However, our production isn’t leading the revolution and/or emancipation – as Walter Benjamin believed it would happen – and that leaves us, as Adorno pointed out, with art that aspires nothing but the spectacle. It is a form of production that represents and confirms the power of the Cultural Industry through giving an illusory idea of freedom.
Humankind has never experienced such an incredible amount of artistic production. Worldwide, there are thousands of art events per year: biennales, documentas, fairs; there is not a city that doesn’t want to follow the Bilbao-Guggenheim model in order to take part in the circuit of art and tourism catalogues; thus, each year, there are hundreds of new museums around the globe; the equation art + museum + tourism seems to be profitable.
In addition to this, every social media feed is filled with art and it is obvious how people try to frame their posts in an artistic manner. This attitude goes further than the mere act of showing. It creates a placebo feeling of satisfaction, which, after all, is based on the like count or the number of hearts each “production” receives.
Jeder Mensch ist ein Künstler stated Joseph Beuys, but also a critic, a curator, or all of them in one. And in the middle of this aesthetic disorder, each person is free to judge, and his/her taste rules.
Furthermore, in our self-design society the ideals of the author as a producer and the everyone is an artist have been overcome by the possibility of being our own self- production in order to become a piece of art –or at least a designer product.
The consequence of living a life as a territory of total art and design, or like Hal Foster perfectly state: from jeans to genes –, is that my image becomes the embodiment of my taste, my ethics, my politic and moral values. Not to mention that the “individuality expressed in ever nail” leaves no spielraum – as Adolf Loos and Karl Kraus claimed in his critic to Art Nouveau’s total design project – for the development of the common sense, inter-subjectivity and culture.Our contemporary experience, besides being aestheticized and atrophied, is a distracted experience: a multi tasking, zapping, scrolling-a-like experience. Benjamin believes that this distracted experience could benefit the revolution: the spectator, aka the masses, will no longer be alienated from the artwork through the passive cult-alike role he/she/it was assigned to. However, our contemporary distracted experience and production is even further away from emancipation and just confirms the power of the industry of entertainment.Furthermore, the expositive value is taking over the cult value and our experience, following Nicolas Bourriaud thesis, is also relational. By interacting and making connections, by playing rhizomatic détournements and de-tours, is how today’s art consumer is creating his/her experience, or to be more precise, his/her/it aesthetic milieu.We are no longer placed against an artwork and our experience is no longer passive. Since the appearance of minimal, installation and performance art, we are mostly installed as a part of the whole piece, playing an active role and that, definitely, has modified our way of experiencing. However, let us not forget the critics against this art practices, specially coming from Michael Fried, when he argues that the theatrical way of inducing and conducting the experience by manipulating the body and its movement oppresses further the spectator.
During the course of the 20th Century many art movements were born out of a theory. Russian Constructivism, for example was based on Marxism, so was Conceptual Art based on Language Theory, specifically the one of Wittgenstein. Nowadays art uses theory not only to translate it meaning into symbolic language: it is necessary for giving sediment and scientific value to the pieces. But also experiencing contemporary art requires knowledge of the theories used by the artist. Thus, for those not part of the Artworld, judgement has been reduced to matters of taste.Furthermore, the easy access to tools of production for making art doesn’t mean its immediate and/or qualitative achievement. The art world unveils more and more the fallacy of its pseudo-democracy. The fusion art-life definitely enables people, anyone and everyone, to make art, but not because there is a certain kind of democratization in the access to art – in consumption specially – means that the production, reception, acceptance and understanding is democratic – if we understand democratic as for everyone.Contemporary art practices can also be considered a tool of exclusion for unprivileged sectors of our society. It celebrates the status quo postponing equality for a further time and space.
“Complex art is considered bourgeois. It needs skills, connoisseurship, and culture that can only belong to the socially privileged. Therefore, when dealing with zones of the socially unprivileged, art should reject its artistic features: complexities, paradoxes, involvement. But it is here that the argument lies. If art is about refined aesthetic difference and taste, if it is reduced to skills needed for its perception, or skills acquired by long-term education to produce it, then such an argument has reasons. But if art is seen via existential, evental, and ethical dimensions, then it is not coincident with education, or dependent on social advantages or taste. Art’s complexity turns out to be about those issues that are embedded in anyone’s personal or social life, in acting in it or reflecting on it […] Hence the paradox: the more democratic art tends to be, the less open it is to those who constitute the demos.” 
“I know what I like” even though “I don’t know anything about art” serves here to ratify that in our so called democratic experience of art we don’t need the figure of the critic or the expert, neither the artist or the curator to tell us what is beautiful and what is not. But we are missing something valuable in the act of experiencing art: the power of communication and aperture of the world that art, in its symbolic ways, has to offer. Even so, and more than ever, this situation invites us to reflect about what we might have lost through eradicating the aesthetic experience as a form of reasoning when it comes to comprehending life. Art cannot be reduced to a theory, neither to a simple “like”.Our approach and understanding of life is both linguistic and aesthetic. The first one is based on the idea that language precedes us, language, following Wittgenstein, is Darstellung. The second comes hand in hand with the first: Darstellung is the mental representation of a meaning and/or idea but through a symbolic form. Thus, we can argue that all knowledge can be considered aesthetic since seeing means recognizing a sensible form that embodies meaning, such as the shape of a rose or a mathematical equation.
“What differentiates the theoretical re-cognition from aesthetic re-cognition is the clue of the look in each case. In the theoretical view, the form in which a meaning is embodied is understood as a description of the world with pretence of truth. In the aesthetic view, however, we are faced with what Kant called "a form of an endless end", the famous Zweckmässigkeit ohne Zweck [...] If we contemplate an object as theoretic, we are subjecting it to a logical-theoretical pragmatics, to a theoretical concept […]. 
The aesthetic experience in Kant belongs to the theory of general experience but it plays a different role than other forms of experience such as reason and logic, science, morality or religion. However, it is based in the common sense and inter-subjectivity. To know the world by sensuous means, that’s what the aesthetic experience is all about. And something with aesthetic qualities means something that has the power to seduce. It is the sensuous form that creates the perceptive pleasure that leads to the aesthetic experience. Aesthetics, following Kant, focuses on the notion of beauty and resides in the realm of sensitivity, not compatible with the cognitive sphere of understanding based in concepts or norms.In Kant, the aesthetic experience doesn’t mean a mere joy of an object: art should create an experience. Thus art holds a truth and to experience it means to acknowledge that truth. Beauty is a universal and transcendental category shared by a society via sensus communis aestheticus that should be experienced based disinterestedness in the act of judging; aesthetics is, let’s not forget, about perception.Taste responds to a question of intersubjective and universal communication that is created from common sense, therefore through public language. And when referring to common, it is not only to the “vulgar” or ordinary meaning of the term, as Kant refers to in the Critique of Judgment. For taste is the closest to our sense-feelings, and to create the basis of understanding of this aspect is as valuable as a scientific norm.
“[...] Taste can be called sensus communis more legitimately than can sound understanding, and that the aesthetic power of judgement deserves to be called a shared sense, more than does the intellectual one, if indeed we wish to use the word sense to stand for an affect that mere reflection has on the mind, even though we then mean by sense the feeling of pleasure. We could even define taste as the ability to judge something that makes our feeling in a given presentation universally communicable without mediation by a concept.” 
Beauty became the main category in judging the artistic condition of an artwork, and taste was established as the category by which the beauty of art is judged. Bearing in mind that taste was that which was shared, that which was common to all individuals, it was also considered a universal category. Thus, the need to appeal to extra-aesthetic judgments to experience an artwork was fading. For that, the individual had an aesthetic reason as valid as others ways of reasoning to issue judgments and sentences regarding the condition (understood as quality) of an artwork.If the aesthetic reason is inherent to individuals (for the fact of being rational), taste also can be considered an a priori, because it is the category of value – communicable by a community – of judgments about the beauty that is in art.David Hume in his text Standard of Taste speaks of taste as a form of judgment shared by individuals that can be improved and cultivated. Cultivation is closely related to the idea of exercising. Exercising my judgment, my notion of taste, not only as an opinion, but also as a constant practice in which I dominate the medium, the language in which I give an opinion.
The idea behind Hume’s argument is that not only taste but also culture, considered an “entity in movement”, can be cultivated, though it also fluctuates and responds to the needs and desires of a community in a particular moment in history. Hume takes the working field as an analogy for arguing that culture must be cultivated for the benefit of civilization, and therefore for the individuals of who it is composed. Taste as well must be cultivated and exercised.
Jürgen Habermas, in his text on the public Strukturwandel der Öffentlichkeit, talks about the value of arguing in social discussions at the time when the public has been constructed. Essential here is the power of arguing through creating the common sense, where the expert succeeds with that element of Aufklärung that allowed him, not only to conduct behaviours, but also to generate “the common thing” by the value of his arguments. On the basis of understanding, those with bigger knowledge and management of the subject hade greater power of persuasion, since their ideas had a stronger foundation and therefore their common-basis judgment was more sustainable. Put differently: The expert who judges through the category of taste is the one who has experience, because he/she has lived and exercised that which he/she speaks about.
Hume would have made a reference to the understanding of language: In order to issue critique it is necessary to know what is spoken about. And if taste is the category by which I judge the beauty of a work, it is clear that I must have seen and thought art in order to express an opinion based on its language.
Concerning this Wittgenstein formulated a simple but forceful phrase: Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muβ man schweigen. The sentence appears to be imperative, especially in a society characterized by talking just for the sake of talking but not for the value of the arguments. Though, what makes Wittgenstein statement so powerful is not what seems to be an invitation to remain silent in the face of ignorance. Its force relies in the necessity of exercising the common sense, to cultivate it in order to emit arguments and judgments not completely outlandish and thus to speak with adequacy. It also highlights the impossibility of naming what is not known, forcing a deeper reflection: a contemplation that allows the understanding and acceptance of the new and, in short, to think about the possibility of creating language and thus of enabling communication. Here is visible how Wittgenstein’s Tractatus should be thought also as an ethic treaty, but this is not the topic in question.
Hume emphasizes an aspect that should be taken into account for the purpose of this text: if an artwork survives the course of years and criticism as something outstanding, or if it is highlighted and therefore still remains meaningful in a different period in history, it is because many individuals must have agreed upon it; not only “ordinary people”, but also experts. Thus, the work of art becomes a reference of taste and beauty. I think of this attitude of Hume in customary law, that is, of the Anglo-Saxon right that judges from what has already been judged. The work that stands out creates the basis for the exercise of judgment and at the same time opens new pathways and expands possibilities for other works and practices, as it “guides behaviours”, styles and forms of expression.
Within this notion lies a parallel, or, if I may, a similarity between Kant's idea of space for reflection and understanding and Heidegger's notion of aperture. The work of art, in its capacity of becoming a space of knowledge, that is an autonomous and sovereign entity over other forms of discourse, is able to open new worlds of understanding through its symbolic form.It is the aperture of the aperture of the world. This, however, doesn’t mean that the work of art holds an inherent function. Artworks are not beautiful in themselves: It is our judgment that defines their beauty.
An artwork should be able to invite us to reflect. Art is loaded with messages, both aesthetic and extra-aesthetic. It is through the experience of art that, in a way, the meaning of art and life is complemented. However, it is also possible to think that a work of art can be complemented in the act of experiencing and interpreting it – in the way Walter Benjamin believed was the duty of a critic.
It is important to have in mind that many contemporary art practices are not conceived as a field where the aesthetic experience is plausible, nevertheless we keep on judging art based in modern categories like beauty, even though the divorce art-aesthetics seems to don’t have conciliation unless we stand on the side of a modern conception of art when it comes to its reception, or we find out a way to make them work together without falling in anachronisms.
An artwork that fosters our capacities of understanding the world through the conjunction of different languages of knowledge is an art that has as a purpose to generate communication, meaning and reflection.Beautiful art can be unpleasant, shocking and sometimes even repulsive. This doesn’t mean that it doesn’t communicate. On the contrary, there may be many more elements that grasp our attention and invite us to investigate and understand it.Art that has the ability to generate reflection through aesthetic reason without supressing other forms of reasoning will be of benefit to and enrich both art and the spectator by expanding the limits of understanding, comprehending and perceiving
 Boris Groys, The Truth Of Art, e-flux Journal #71, 2016. Keti Chukhrov, On the False Democracy of Contemporary Art, e-flux journal #57, 2014. Gerard Vilar, Las razones del arte. Immanuel Kant, Critic Of Judgment. SS.40.